Water flowed in with shocking speed. It didn’t sting or dissolve his clothes, but it did smell very strongly of ozone. Arthur barely had time to register this and take a breath before the water hit the red line. It was up around his eyes before he even pulled the red handle. Instantly, the hatch above flicked open.
Arthur clumsily kicked the floor, favouring his bad leg, so that he didn’t get clear of the escape chamber in one go. He had to push against the wall till he rose up in a froth of bubbles from the small pocket of air that had been left, mixed with the atmosphere trapped under his clothes.
Orientating himself from the line of the submersible’s hull, Arthur struck out for where the door was supposed to be. The rainbow light from the dome was much brighter when seen directly, so for a moment Arthur couldn’t see the archway even from the corner of his eye. Panic started to rise in him, until he calmed himself with the simple thought that even if he didn’t find the door, all he had to do was rise to the surface. Though if he did that, it might be hard to dive back down again.
Then he saw the archway, a little bit to the left of where he thought it was. Arthur already felt as if he needed a breath, but he was used to that feeling. He kicked harder, feeling the strangeness of his crab-armoured leg, and scooped harder with his arm stroke.
The archway drew nearer. Looking down, Arthur saw that the layer of fine debris and muck below him contained many bones, broken skulls, and pieces of rusted chain. Evidence of the scores, possibly even hundreds, of slave salvagers who had either failed to return to Feverfew’s worldlet . . .
. . . Or who had been thrown out, to die in the belly of the Leviathan.
ARTHUR REACHED THE DOORWAY. As he touched it, the rainbow colours drifted away, to be replaced by a featureless grey. Even more disturbingly, his hand went through it as if there was nothing there.
The boy didn’t stop. He kicked again, and went through the grey archway, to land sprawling on a wet stone floor.
‘What was that?’ asked a voice.
Arthur rolled over and sat up, ready to move. He saw that he was in a large, timber-walled room — more of a shed or barn really, since the far end was completely open and there was bright sunshine streaming in.
There were four Denizens sitting on a wild variety of chairs of different styles and eras, around a highly polished table that even to Arthur looked like a priceless antique. The Denizens were all dressed in flamboyant and ill-matching finery, mixing up everything from twentieth-century Earth military tunics to glittering, lumpy, alien-looking helmets. Every inch of their visible skin was tattooed, and they all had at least three knives in their belts, as well as short, pistol-grip crossbows on the floor next to their chairs.
‘What was what?’ another Denizen asked.
Arthur moved very slowly towards the wall. There was no cover at all, nothing in the room save the table and chairs, but there was a narrow band of shadow along the edge where the floor met the wall.
One of the Denizens stood up.
‘I thought I heard something near the water gate.’
Arthur crouched in the shadow.
It’ll take a while to pump out the escape chamber ready for Suzy to come through, he thought. But maybe she’ll swim faster than I did. If she comes through now, the Denizen will see her for sure, even as a rat …
‘Sit down! It’s your turn!’
The Denizen slowly sat down and turned his attention to whatever was on the table. Some sort of game, Arthur saw, being played on a board with glittering pieces made from gold and gems. Not chess, because he didn’t recognise the pieces, and all four Denizens were playing. They each had piles of paper in front of them too, which changed hands frequently. Not bank notes, but badly torn-up scraps and pieces with scrawled writing on them.
Arthur crawled along the wall, thinking furiously. If Suzy came out now, and they heard her, he’d try to distract them.
‘What was that?’
The same Denizen stood up again. Arthur looked around and saw a rat scuttle across the floor, out of the archway.
All of the Denizens erupted out of their chairs, sending them flying. As they bent down to grab their crossbows, Arthur ran straight at them. Not daring to hesitate, he jumped on the table, kicked the board over, and jumped again to the far side, almost stumbling as a sharp pain shot through his bad leg, despite the crab armour’s support.
A crossbow bolt zinged to the left of Arthur, sending chips of stone flying. He zigzagged and another bolt whisked past his ear. Then he was outside, in the bright sunshine, standing on sandy ground strewn with rocks. There was a stand of palm trees nearby, the first of a whole line that stretched along the narrow peninsula back to the island proper.
Arthur hurled himself towards the closest palm, continuing to zig and zag, but there were no more crossbow bolts. Once he got behind the trunk, he risked a glance back.
The four Denizens were standing by the entrance to the shed, reloading their crossbows. They didn’t look like they were going to pursue Arthur.
There was no sign of Suzy. Arthur scanned the ground, his breath coming in ragged gasps as he grew more afraid that she had been hit by a crossbow bolt. After a few breaths that didn’t get properly into his lungs, Arthur tried to calm down.
This is a bubble from the Secondary Worlds, he told himself. The bubble is inside the House but the bubble contains a fragment of a Secondary Realm. Maybe even of Earth. It looks like it. So I’ll get asthma here. Have to be careful. Don’t push too hard …
A sudden squeak near his foot made Arthur jump. He looked down. A rat was looking up at him, making gestures with her paws.
‘Suzy!’ Arthur exclaimed, before he remembered she would only hear a squeak.
Suzy squeaked some more, insistently. Arthur correctly translated this as ‘Get a move on!’
He turned and, jogging rather than running, moved to the next palm, and then the next. As he jogged, he looked ahead, trying to match up the geography with the map he’d seen.
There was the harbour off to the right. Arthur could see the hulks of at least a dozen vessels all piled up on the far side. Total wrecks, or near enough. But closer, floating at anchor, were the Shiver and the Moth. And worst of all there was the Flying Mantis, its sails furled, their green radiance dimmed.
‘So Feverfew has captured Leaf,’ Arthur muttered to himself.
If she isn’t already dead.
He stopped, sheltered by a clump of palms, to get his breath back and look around more easily.
There were half a dozen low stone buildings clustered around the quay, clearly warehouses. Up the slight hill from there was Feverfew’s fort, a building of earth and stone ramparts shaped like a star within a star, with cannons visible on many levels. Across from that, and under its guns, were three ramshackle wooden buildings, little more than long sheds, with holes for windows.
Slave quarters, Arthur thought.
There were few signs of life. The occasional glint from the helmet of a sentry in the fort, and a bit of movement aboard the Shiver. But the slave quarters were still. The breeze was blowing towards Arthur, but he couldn’t hear anything, save the plaintive cry of some kind of seabird. He looked for that, remembering the black cormorants that had flow from the buoy to warn Feverfew, but no birds were visible.
Arthur looked away, up to the hills, where the Raised Rat spy had noted Followers of the Carp. Escaped Slaves. on her map.
The hills were a lot higher than he’d expected, perhaps more than a thousand feet, and were also covered in what looked like dense jungle or rain forest. It would not be easy to climb them or to find anyone there, particularly if they were trying to stay hidden.
Suzy squeaked something at him and jumped up and down on the spot, an action Arthur took to mean ‘get on with it.’
He got on with it, walking quickly to the next clump of palms. His breathing was all right, but he knew he couldn’t take any risks. He had no medication here. No inhaler, and no paramedics with beta-agonists and oxygen or emergency rooms nearby.
Suzy squeaked again and did a somersault, showing her impatience.
‘I can’t go any faster,’ said Arthur, even though he knew she’d hear only the squeak. He shrugged his shoulders up and down as well.
It did seem to pacify Suzy for the moment. She stopped being agitated and walked along with Arthur peaceably enough. They still went from clump to clump of palms, to be on the safe side, and every fifty yards or so Arthur stopped to listen and look around. The peninsula they were on was about a mile from the harbour, so he figured they should be reasonably safe.
After a while, they left the peninsula and started out across the mainland, where the palms and sandy ground gave way to thick dark earth with lots of rocky outcrops, and stunted, windblown trees with grey-green leaves. These spread low to the ground and made the going more difficult, particularly as Arthur occasionally found himself thinking he was much smaller than he was, and hit his head on a branch. This was disturbing, as it suggested Doctor Scamandros’s rat disguises were having some effect on their wearers as well as observers. But Arthur couldn’t worry about it. He concentrated on heading toward the hills, watching out for pirates or cormorants or other things that might serve Feverfew, and keeping his breathing steady.
The stunted, spreading grey-green trees didn’t last long. As the ground continued to rise, the bare earth and stones were replaced by leaf litter, small ferns, larger ferns, and big pale-trunked trees that rose straight up for forty or fifty feet before spreading out to make a thick canopy that greatly reduced the light and heat from the sun.
The air felt much more moist too, and there were little rivulets of water to jump across every ten yards or so, usually into soft ground that was not quite mud — or if it was, it had a sufficient layer of leaves, bracken, and forest debris to make it more solid.
There were occasional small noises in this verdant undergrowth, but nothing too alarming, and Arthur hadn’t seen any footprints or other signs that the pirates ever left their harbourside dwelling. He was also starting to think of himself more and more as a rat, so when they had clambered up to a clearing that he thought marked the first stage of their hill ascent, he stopped and took off his rat mask and tail.
Suzy didn’t take hers off. She sniffed around his feet and then sat in a begging posture, squeaking. Finally Arthur leaned down, gripped the rat by the nose and tail, both of which felt totally authentic, and pulled.
Finding himself suddenly pinching Suzy’s real nose and tugging on a loose piece of cloth from her ripped-up dress, Arthur let go.
‘Cor, what I wouldn’t give for a piece of cheese,’ Suzy said as she massaged her nose. ‘I reckon the Doctor made those charms too strong. I was only following you that last bit cause you were another rat and I thought you might know where some food was.’
‘At least they worked properly to begin with,’ said Arthur. He peered up at the sky and then back down the slope. He could just see the topmast of the Mantis and a patch of blue that was the outer harbour. The harbour buildings were out of sight, obscured by a ridge lower down. But in the valley below, he could see a huge circular patch of dark brown edged in bright yellow. He realised this must be the nose cavity of the skull he’d seen drawn on the map. A lake of mud that the mapmaker had also annotated with the word Nothing and a question mark.
After watching the lake for a few seconds, Arthur saw that the mud must be hot, for huge bubbles appeared and the surface was in constant, low movement as the mud roiled and turned over.
‘Bet that fair stinks,’ said Suzy, looking down at the lake. ‘Lucky the wind’s the other way. Where to now?’
‘I think we’re about halfway up the first hill,’ said Arthur. ‘But I really don’t know for sure. I wonder where these Followers of the Carp hang out? I mean, where would you go if you’d escaped from the pirates? Besides away from the harbour, which we’ve done.’
‘Up,’ said Suzy. ‘They’re Denizens, right? They always want to go up. Up is good, inside the House. The higher the better. That’s why the superior ones, like the Noons and such, make themselves tall. Got a thing about it. Bit silly really, just makes it harder to get clothes to fit.’
‘Up,’ said Arthur. ‘That makes sense. Unfortunately. I hope I’ll be okay to keep climbing.’
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Suzy. She hadn’t spent any time with Arthur in the Secondary Realms when he didn’t have a Key.
‘I have a . . . I guess you’d call it a breathing sickness,’ said Arthur. ‘Sometimes it comes on if I do too much exercise. Because this worldlet is part of the Secondary Realms, I might get affected by it.’
‘Like black lung, is it?’ asked Suzy, clearly interested. ‘Or the greenspit cough?’
‘Maybe,’ said Arthur. ‘Don’t worry about it, though. I feel fine for now. Slow and steady, that’s how we’ll go.’
‘Without the rat disguises?’
Arthur nodded. ‘We should be okay up here. But we’d better hang on to them just in case we need to use them to get back out.’
After a brief rest, they continued on. The rain forest drew in again as they left the clearing, and there were no obvious paths. Arthur simply went where the undergrowth had a gap in it or was less sparse, but he always aimed uphill.
After another half hour or so of thrashing their way upslope, Arthur paused for another rest. He wanted to wait till they hit a clearing, but there had been no sign of one and he had to take a break.
‘Not much to see, is there?’ said Suzy. ‘Smells a bit too.’
Arthur sniffed at the rich odour of the forest.